As a first-year associate at a big firm in Los Angeles, I spent days, nights, and weekends plowing through endless boxes of nearly incomprehensible fine print in windowless rooms, working for stressed-out mid-level associates who were under tight deadlines. The firm paid me well for it, but after only a few months a troubling thought began to creep in: Do I really want to do this for the next 30 years?
I had drifted into law school without a plan and took a job at a big firm for the wrong reasons: A hedonistic experience as a summer associate and the six-figure offer that followed turned my head. As a way to get out of the back room and maybe get more substantive work, I volunteered for a pro bono case.
The next morning two boxes arrived in my office, each labeled in faded black marker: The People v. Mario Rocha.
Those boxes changed my life.
At 16, Mario had been arrested in a sweep after a murder at a high school keg party in East L.A. He did not belong to a gang, own a gun, or have a gun at the party. The only evidence against him was a weak identification by one eyewitness. But he was tried along with two known gang members and defended incompetently; the jury convicted him of murder and attempted murder, and he was sentenced as an adult to two consecutive life terms with no possibility of parole. After Mario's conviction was upheld on appeal, his only hope was a habeas corpus petition?a 10,000-to-one long shot, at best.
Fortunately for Mario?a bright, appealing, and gifted writer?his cause was championed by Sister Janet Harris, a well-connected nun with a will of steel who met Mario and became convinced of his innocence. After years of trying to get a lawyer to look at his case, Sister Janet persuaded a senior litigation partner at my firm to take it on pro bono.
I dived into the case. For the next four years I lived parallel lives: By day I billed hours as a litigation associate reviewing documents and writing memos for corporate battles, and on weekends (and stolen days) I drafted habeas petitions as Mario's case went back and forth between the superior court and the court of appeal. Through letters, phone calls, and my trips to the State Prison at Calipatria, Mario and I became friends. He was about my age, widely read, and unwaveringly confident that ultimately the truth would prevail and we would win his vindication. On those four-hour drives back from Calipatria, I thought about the flawed and human side of the criminal justice system and what I was doing with my career. Mario's case was life and death, real in a way corporate law never would be.
As I got more emotionally invested in Mario's case, it became difficult for me to focus on my billable work. This conflict came to a head in the fall of 2005. As we were preparing for a hearing for Mario?our last, best chance?in the California Court of Appeal, I got a warning that my billable hours were falling short of the firm's expectations. I made a decision: I would stay at my job long enough to see Mario's case through, but after that, win or lose, I was getting out.
That December, I got a call from a reporter who had been following Mario's case. She was hysterical: "Ian can you believe it? I can't believe it! This is so incredible!" Glancing at my computer screen, I saw the subject line of an email from the court of appeal: "Petition granted." More than five years after my firm took on Mario's case, the justices unanimously vacated his conviction (In Re Rocha,
37 Cal. Rptr. 345 (2005) (unpublished opinion)). After ten years in prison, Mario Rocha would go free. A few weeks later, I gave my notice and never looked back.
Through Mario's case, I had found my reason for becoming a lawyer. After writing a book about my experience (Unbillable Hours: A True Story,
published this month by Kaplan Books), I began teaching and practicing in the field of juvenile justice and wrongful convictions. Mario's case was my personal salvation?in the short term because the work enabled me to survive the law firm grind for five years; and in the longer term because it freed me to see a world beyond the confines of big firm life.
Ian Graham is an adjunct professor at Loyola Law School's Center for Juvenile Law and Policy in Los Angeles.